Author Archives: awachter

Waking up Anxious

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

If you commonly wake up in the morning, filled with anxious thoughts and sensations, you are not alone. Anxiety levels have reached epidemic proportions in our fast-paced world. It is estimated that globally, 284 million people experienced an anxiety disorder in 2017, making anxiety the most prevalent mental health disorder that exists. And that estimate does not even include all the unreported people who suffer from anxiety, or the people who do not relate to having a full-blown disorder but still struggle with it. Beyond medication prescriptions and deep breath recommendations, many people are hard pressed to find help that actually helps and often spend day after day suffering in silence.

Rather than load you up with a bunch of tips, techniques and tools (my usual style!), I’d like you to instead, consider the following two scenarios. I will be using a parent/child relationship in these examples but if you don’t relate to kids, you can substitute your dearest friend or family member.

As you read these scenarios, I ask you to ponder the following questions:

  • Which scene reminds you of how you usually speak to or treat yourself?
  • What thoughts or feelings come up as you read each example?
  • Which scenario would you choose, for yourself or for others?

Scenario one:

You have a child who struggles with anxiety. She often wakes up feeling scared and her mind spins with all the worst-case scenarios of the day ahead. This morning, she climbs into bed with you and tells you that she feels like she has a rock in her chest and butterflies in her tummy. You tell her even more scary things that could happen as you lie next to her and you agree with her that really horrible things could happen. You tell her to focus on her body and watch as the sensations get even bigger. You tell her it’s hopeless and that she will likely never feel any better. She starts to panic, and you tell her even more scary things that could happen to her and how nobody really understands her. At some point, you grab your phone or gadget and mindlessly surf the internet for a few hours. Then finally, you tell her she needs to just get it together. You drag her into the shower and give her a cup of coffee and a donut before sending her off to school.

Scenario two:

You have a child who struggles with anxiety. He often wakes up feeling scared and his mind spins with all the worst-case scenarios of the day ahead. This morning, he climbs into bed with you and tells you that he feels like he has a rock in his chest and butterflies in his tummy. You wrap your arms around him and tell him that the scary thoughts in his mind are all made-up stories and that not one of those things are actually happening right now. You point out all that is real and true in the moment, like the fact that he is safe right now. You have him focus on the blanket as you wrap him up even tighter and cozier. You have him focus on the pillow beneath his head and ask him if he can relax his head into the support of the pillow as he focuses on his breathing. You have him tell you several things that he can see with his eyes, hear with his ears and feel with his hands and feet. You remind him of so many times in the past when he was scared about things and they either never happened, or he got through them and can barely even remember them now. You open up your very favorite meditation app, Insight Timer, and you pick a meditation that you are drawn to in that moment. You play it and ask him to listen to it no matter how anxious he feels. You bring him fresh water and warm tea, and even though he tells you he has no appetite, you make him a delicious, nutritious breakfast and ask him to eat as much of it as he can. You play his favorite music. You take him outside for fresh air and some movement on the way to school and you remind him that hard moments pass and that he can and will get through this. You teach him that we are all born different breeds, or personalities, and that some of us have to work a bit harder to quiet our minds but there are positive qualities to being the breed he was born, even if he can’t feel or know them right now. You tell him you love him, and you remind him that he is very lovable.

So, which scenario do you choose for yourself?

View on Insight Timer

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Tendency for Codependency?

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT and Marsea Marcus, LMFT

Do you often focus on the needs of others but ignore your own?

Do you find yourself preoccupied by how your loved ones are doing?

Do you have difficulty expressing your feelings and needs in your relationships?

Do you feel compelled to jump in and try to fix others when they’re struggling?

Do you regularly sacrifice your own self-care for the sake of others?

Do you offer support to others without even checking in with your own needs?

All of the above questions are indicators of codependency. Codependency is when somebody consistently focuses on the feelings and needs of others, at the expense of their own. This behavioral pattern hurts not only the codependent, but it also hinders the other person’s growth.

Codependency is sometimes referred to as a relationship addiction. But unlike addictions to substances like alcohol, drugs or cigarettes, where recovery involves complete abstinence, when someone struggles with codependency, the path to wellness is not as clear-cut. You can’t simply stop “the symptoms” of loving, supporting and helping the people you care about. And even if you could, that does not necessarily constitute health either.

It’s healthy and appropriate to help others at times, to feel concerned about our loved ones, or to offer support to the people we care about. It’s only when these things are taken to extremes that they can be harmful rather than helpful.

A codependent person has an extreme need to take care of others and to focus on other people, while ignoring their own needs, problems and desires. In a codependent relationship, one person loses their own identity and orbits around another person. Often, that other person is an addict of some kind, but not always.

The poblem for the recipient of codependent behavior is that they become used to having their problems attended to by someone else. They can stay stuck in a lifestyle that may be ruining their lives or even killing them and, partly as a result of the codependents in their lives, they don’t have the motivation to do anything about their problems; they can leave that to others.

It is important to note that, on the positive side, most codependents are very caring people with very big hearts. Codependency can even look and seem saintly. After all, many codependent people would do almost anything for their friends, children or spouses, including putting their own life on hold. They are loyal! But they tend to be overly loyal, not knowing when (or how) to stop. They over-care, feel overly responsible for others, and are overly focused on the needs of others.

In healthy relationships, each person factors their own needs into their decision-making process, it’s not all about the other person. (Especially when that other person is an addict and not making good decisions for themselves.) In healthy relationships there is a balance between giving and receiving, talking and listening.

Often, a person caught in the grips of codependency feels that their own needs are unimportant. Even though they may look like the “healthier” person of the two, they have their own issues that cause them to think other people are more important than they are, that their own feelings don’t matter, and that they are responsible for saving people. Their desperate need for approval trumps all other needs. When somebody consistently diminishes their own feelings and needs and looks to others for approval and identity, this results in an unhealthy dynamic (for both people). Codependency really isn’t good for anyone, despite the accolades that a codependent person might receive for being so “good” or “helpful.”

Healing from codependency involves subtle and deep self-inquiry. For example, it might feel healthy and appropriate to give your adult child some money in one instance, but at another time, your gut is telling you it’s not a good idea, that they have not been making wise choices with money lately, and that giving them money may only help to perpetuate their bad choices. Healing requires thinking these things through instead of simply reacting to impulses to help.

There are certainly times when doing something for someone else feels like the right thing to do and there are times when that very same offer could be codependent. To know which is which, a person has to be able to tap into their internal wisdom. If someone is unable to do this, it’s important they seek help (i.e. therapy or a trusted friend) to look at the underlying issues that caused them to separate from their internal wisdom in the first place.

For example, if our early caregivers were unhealthy or had a lot of unmet needs themselves, we may have ended up taking on the role of caregiver, rather than the adult being the caregiver, as nature intended it. When this happens, we often lose our connection to our own developmental needs and develop an overactive attunement to our caregiver, and then others. This can cause an internal disconnection from our innate wisdom. Also, some children are naturally wired to be highly empathetic. They tend to over-care about approval, leading them to focus on making other people happy, and under-care about their own feelings and needs. These kids need their caretakers to be in charge and not let them caretake their caretakers.

You may remember a book that was popular back in the 70’s called I’m OK – You’re OK. Think of the codependent version as: I’m OK – If You’re OK. But, in all seriousness, when someone struggles with codependency, it can be very painful business. The constant efforts to fix someone are stressful and, combined with a lack of self-care, can lead to many emotional and physical problems, as well as impede the other person’s growth.

Signs of Codependency

It can be difficult to distinguish healthy caring behaviors from codependent behaviors. In some situations, like when raising a child or helping an elderly person, putting someone else’s needs above one’s own might be necessary and appropriate. Children and some elderly people actually are dependent in a way that another adult should not be.

Here are some signs to look out for:

Consitently putting others’ needs first, at the expense of your own.

Neglecting to check in with your own feelings and needs. 

Doing things out of obligation rather than true desire. 

Not being able to separate out your own needs from what you think are the needs of others. 

Regularly compromising, minimizing or ignoring your own needs. 

Frequent ruminating or obsessing about other people’s feelings, life situations and needs. 

 Having difficulty saying no, setting limits, or making requests on your own behalf. 

Feeling like you don’t have a choice if someone asks you to do something for them.

Neglecting your own self-care because you’re too busy taking care of others. 

Feeling guilty if you say no to someone. 

Having difficulty tolerating someone else’s response if your desires or preferences differ from theirs. 

Having a hard time tolerating glitches or rough spots in your relationships and always needing things to be okay in order for you to feel okay. 

Holding in or denying your true feelings, thoughts and needs because you’re too afraid to voice them.

Feeling resentful because you do too much for others and don’t realize you have choices. 

Jumping at other peoples’ needs without even factoring in your own. 

Thinking it’s your job to help someone when they are struggling.

A Codependent Friendship:

Let’s meet Callie and her friend Lisa. Lisa asks Callie if she can drive her to the airport. Immediately in Callie’s body, she gets a clear sense of “no.” She has been working overtime, while sick with a cold. Her laundry is piled up. The day of Lisa’s flight will be the first day Callie will have time to rest and catch up on her life. This just isn’t going to work for her. But barely tuning into her inner voice about this, Callie immediately thinks about how much Lisa has been struggling lately. She lost her car in a bad accident (yes, she was drunk, but still, she’s really inconvenienced now without a car). And Lisa has been trying really hard to get sober, but everything has seemed to go against her. This ride is one thing Callie can do to make life a little easier for her friend. Callie thinks, “If I don’t do this, Lisa might end up drinking. I can still find time to rest and do my laundry. How can I not help my friend out? I’m lucky to have a car and the time to help her. I feel like I have to give her this ride.”

We all have an inner voice that tells us when something is a no, a yes or a maybe. Someone who struggles with codependency is often not in touch with that knowing, or they are but they ignore it.

So, Callie gets a negative feeling inside that tells her the airport ride does not work for her. The codependent response she chose was to say “yes” anyway. One result will probably be that Callie feels even more exhausted, stressed and, on top of that, resentful.

The healthy response might be for Callie to kindly tell Lisa that she is unable to give her a ride and trust that honoring her gut will be best for both of them, even if it’s difficult. Callie might even realize that she wouldn’t want someone doing a favor for her when it really didn’t work for them, and that Lisa deserves authenticity from her friend.

Again, this does not mean that healthy friends never sacrifice, flex, or go out of their way for each other. It means they regularly tune-in to their inner guidance, their internal GPS, if you will. And that’s where they get their answers. They feel that they have a choice about whether to say “yes” or “no” to the requests of others. They can weigh out the pros and cons honestly and make decisions that respect both the other person and themselves. They can sacrifice their own needs at times, but they can also say “no”, negotiate other options and voice their own feelings, thoughts and needs.

Tips for Healing Codependency:

Take time to think about what you are feeling and needing and how you can best take care of yourself each day.

Remind yourself that you have choices. Practice saying “No”, even if it’s really hard.

 Remember that you are not responsible for another adult’s feelings or life.

Practice pausing before you say “yes” to any request someone makes of you. Tell the requestor you have to think about what they’re asking and get back to them.

Ask yourself what you might do in the situation if you did not feel obligated or afraid.

Tune into your own needs before you jump in to offer support.

Begin expressing your preferences on smaller things, like restaurant or movie choices. This will help you prepare for the bigger things like relationship needs and limit setting.

Take time each day to inquire within. Make it a regular practice to drop down from your mind (where codependent decisions and beliefs are born), into your heart (where you will discover your truth). Spiritual activities like meditation, prayer or quiet contemplation, journaling or connecting with nature can help you do this.

Start asking yourself what you truly love to do. Aside from the family and friends you care about, what other interests do you have? What did you used to be passionate about but gave up?Practice allowing others to experience their hardships and figure out their own solutions, rather than jumping in to save them.

Learn to tolerate someone else having feelings (other than happy)!

If you think a friend is codependent with you, encourage them to take care of themselves, hear them when they express doubt about doing something, respect their answer when they say, “No”, insist they make some choices (like which movie or restaurant to go to) and make space for them to talk about themselves.

Tell yourself (until you believe it) that your feelings, needs and preferences matter too. 

Make it a habit to treat yourself as kindly and importantly as you treat everyone else!

If this list seems challenging to impossible for you, consider getting professional help from a therapist who specializes in codependency. Also, check out some books, blogs or podcasts on the topic.

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6 Turning Points That Were Essential To My Recovery

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

As an eating disorders therapist and survivor, I am often asked if there were certain turning points along my personal journey of recovery. You know, those fork in the road, “Aha” moments when things began to turn around, really turn around for the better?

While I have countless memories of disordered behaviors and thoughts: fad diets, isolated binges, and shamefully sneak eating, just to name a few, I have also had a handful of “Aha” moments that stand out as beacons along the path.

If you are deep in the throes of an eating disorder, or in the midst of climbing your way out, may you begin to gather some healthy turning points of your own.

Before I dive in, I want to note that each and every one of these significant crossroads was preceded by many moments of striving, glimpses of hope, and big bumps along the way. When they say (whoever “they” is!) that recovery is a process and not an event, they weren’t kidding. So if you have been feeling like recovery is hopeless for you, I am here to tell you it’s not. I spent years in the grips of food and weight obsession, daily restricting, and out of control eating. But I never gave up, and if you keep going and don’t give up, your awareness will deepen and your progress will reveal itself, often when you least expect it.

1. All foods shall remain equal

One of the most significant turning points for me came when I decided, after decades of restricting and binging, to take a new vow with food. After years of calorie counting, point calculating, and massive rebellion, my new vow was this:

All foods shall remain equal. There are no longer any good or bad foods. When preparing to make a food choice, I will tune into my body and ask what it truly wants. I now pronounce heart, mind and body as one.

I was terrified to take the leap. I’d tried countless times to let go of dieting only to end up bingeing. But what did I have to lose except constant obsession and dizzying rides on the diet/binge roller coaster? So I gave it yet another try, a deeper try. And unbeknownst to me, this time turned out to be a critical turning point, because I never went back.

So, instead of entering the kitchen or opening a menu already knowing what I “should” have, or will-have-cause-I never-get-to-have, my new vow was to truly ask my body what it truly wanted and then stay tuned for the amount that felt truly loving.

And for the first time in my adult life, I ate whatever my body guided me to eat and a sane amount was totally satisfying.

2. Intuitive eating does not equal perfection

At times, I knew exactly what and how much my body wanted, and the clarity felt fantastic. But other times, I still wasn’t crystal clear. I’d taken my vow to let go of dieting and rioting, but there were still times when I just wasn’t totally sure what or how much to eat.

My internal dialogue during those moments sounded something like this:

Is this craving physical or emotional? Is this my body or my mind that’s telling me to have dessert? Am I really still hungry or am I just having feelings? If I skip dessert, am I restricting? Is this my intuition or my eating disorder I’m hearing?

While some internal dialogue is necessary for clarity, I realized (surprise, surprise!) that I was trying to intuitively eat, perfectly. And since perfection was part of what got me into my eating disorder in the first place, it certainly was not going to help me climb out!

So, telling myself I didn’t have to do this perfectly was quite a relief. I just needed to continue inquiring with my body to see what it needed, wanted, liked, and loved. And just like any relationship, it didn’t have to be (nor would it ever be) perfect. Phew!

Loosening the reigns of perfection would often help me get clarity, and even when I wasn’t crystal clear, with perfection off the table, I was off the hook!

3. How would I feed a loved one?

Another turning point along the path of non-perfection came when I was trying to distinguish my intuition from the rubble of old food rules and I still, at times, did not know what to eat. Perhaps I was too filled with feelings or thoughts to gain clarity. Perhaps I was still making too much of the decision. In any case, when I couldn’t figure out how to feed myself lovingly, I asked myself this simple question: How would I feed someone I love?

Somehow, imagining how I would feed someone else, freed my intuition loose from the brambles of rules and rebellion. Sometimes I would even imagine a beautiful tray of food that I was bringing to someone I love, someone who does not diet or overeat. Then I would allow an image to come to mind. I’d spent so long dieting and rebelling, that at times it felt impossible for me to know how to lovingly feed myself, so imagining how I’d feed someone else helped elicit a menu of options until the new way of feeding myself became more second nature.

So sometimes I had crystal clear clarity on what and how much my body needed and wanted. Other times, I’d ask myself how I would feed another body who I truly loved and cared for. And all the while, the freedom of not having to do either one perfectly kept me going and growing.

4. Swerving isn’t rolling

There are many factors that can lead someone to a binge. My top contenders were: feelings I didn’t want to feel, thoughts I didn’t want to think, restrictive eating, diet mentality, and believe it or not, overeating. I would actually overeat because I overate! You may have driven down this old road a time or two thousand: I blew it. May as well go all the way and start again tomorrow

I recall the turning point that turned this illogical logic on its heels. I realized, for the first time that just because I started to binge, it did not mean I had to keep going. If I’m driving a car and swerve, I (hopefully) wouldn’t just roll the car.

So, I stopped. Mid-binge. This had never happened before. I swerved, but I didn’t have to roll the car. Did this mean I had to feel my feelings? You bet. Did it mean I had to tolerate being full till the food digested? Yup. Did this mean my unkind mind would try to have it’s all or nothing way with me? Perhaps. But this time, I responded back.

I do not have to overeat just because I overate! I can stop now. Yes, it’s super uncomfortable but so will more bingeing be. I can turn in and out for support and figure out what led me to the overeat in the first place.

And for the first time in my personal history, I was able to steer myself back to center rather than roll my vehicle in the muck of all-or-nothing hopelessness.

5. Change your mind – not your body

Wanting to lose weight had been a goal of mine for as far back as I can remember. In fact, if I’d had a pie chart (pardon the pun!) of the different ways I’d spent my time on the planet, trying to lose weight would have been the biggest slice. I don’t blame myself. You get told enough times that something will bring you love, approval and happily ever-after-ness, you seek that sucker and you seek it hard. And sought I did. Starting in early adolescence, losing weight became my main mission in life.

Until I changed my mind. (Not my body, my mind!) I remember many years ago, walking on the beach with a dear friend. I had been telling her how absolutely sick and tired I was of trying to lose weight and she lovingly said four simple words that somehow set me straight: “Well knock it off!”

Prior to that time, I would not have been able to heed her sage and simple suggestion. But given that this turned out to be a turning point, I could. So, I knocked it off.

She meant it playfully of course, but having spent the prior several decades in the grips of weight loss obsession, I was somewhat shocked by my ability to say, “Okay,” and then proceed on with some new life goals: self-love, self-acceptance and peace, leading the pack.

It was as if I’d spent years trying to fit the pieces of a puzzle together: welcome feelings, self-compassion, speak authentically, release perfection, reach out, ditch diets… And then one day, out of the clear blue visit with a friend, a puzzle piece found its way into place.

6. Move for fun

Another turning point that stands out took place in a gym of all places. I was doing my sets and reps of whatever I had been told by someone to do, and something occurred to me. It sounded something along the lines of: I am not having fun! 

In the same way I’d taken a vow to eat what and how much sounded really good to me, it was time to take the same vow with movement. That turning point led me down the road of deep rest and enjoyable movement that I am still on today. I sincerely hope you will join me!

I know these ideas and concepts may seem way easier typed than done, and I know we all have to do our emotional work before our demons lose their grip. But, if you stay committed to the path of recovery, whatever juncture you may be facing, you too can have turning points right around the corner!

View on Recovery Warriors

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No Pain, No Gain? Think Again

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

I don’t know about you, but I bought that “No pain, no gain” philosophy hook, line and sinker. And boy did I sink. I knew how I was going to “work out” my body before my feet even hit the floor every morning. Regardless of seasons, soreness or sickness, I was going to abide by the “fitness rules” and earn my right to eat and exist. It wasn’t about what I loved to do or how my body wanted to move or rest, it was about fitting into the culture and fitting into whatever size jeans I deemed acceptable at the time. It wasn’t about communing with nature or connecting with my body, it was about burning calories and carbs.

I knew what our culture valued and, by gosh, I was going to fit in. I was going to eat the foods that had been deemed saintly and avoid any foods that had been deemed sinful. And then I was going to reap all that I was promised: happiness, confidence, love and approval. The only problem was, the system was faulty. The promises were never delivered. Maybe for a minute, as I soaked up all the compliments about having “willpower” and “discipline.” But I lived in constant fear of never being enough, fear of veering off my schedule, fear of when the willful wall would come tumbling down, fear of my next binge, and fear of what the scale would say.

These days, I’m operating on a different internal program. I actually ask my body, rather than my mind, how it wants to move, rest and eat. And I listen. I couldn’t decipher my answers at first because it was so new to ask my body what it wanted. Plus, the answers terrified me if they were anything other than my internal drill sergeant’s regimens and rules.

If our minds are congested with traffic, we are not likely to hear a response that is grounded in wisdom. Most of us have ingested the diet and fitness industry’s bylaws. And while those rules certainly promise we will live happily-ever-after, they rarely deliver. It takes courage, willingness and lots of practice to weed through the brambles of our brainwashed minds and decipher our body’s wisdom. But it’s in there. You were born with it and you can find it again.

Recently, I was sadly reminded of our cultural brainwashing while on a lovely walk in the forest. The trail I was on was virtually silent, so it was impossible to miss the conversation of two joggers passing me by. The women were in the midst of a conversation that went something like this:

Jogger one: “I hate running. Every part of my body hurts.”

(Just to be crystal clear, this conversation was taking place while she was running!)

Jogger two: “I know. I feel so much better when I walk but I’m afraid I’ll end up looking like my mother if I don’t run.”

Jogger one: “I feel great when I walk too. Nothing hurts. When I run, my knees hurt, my hips hurt, my back hurts, everything hurts.”

And then they were gone. I could almost see the invisible whip at their dusty heels.

Wait! I wanted to call after them! If you hate running, you don’t have to run. You’re scared; and fear needs love and reassurance, not cardio and steamed vegetables. Wait, sisters. You can slow down. You can listen to your bodies. That’s what intuition is. That’s why we have it. 

But I get it. I spent decades under the No-Pain-No-Gain Spell. I worked out, regardless of the conditions outside or inside. And while I often felt that endorphin-induced high, the high always went away. I never felt much peace, calm or confidence. I was terrified to skip a day, rest, or modify according to my body’s messages.

Nowadays, I ask my body how it wants to move, rest and eat. Of course, it’s not a perfect system. There are times I have a plan with someone that involves movement or a certain type of food that may not have been my body’s number one choice, and I choose to keep my commitment. But if a plan with another person conflicts with my body’s true needs, I will cancel, reschedule or propose a modification. My intuition runs the show now, and I listen. My mind used to run the show, until I learned that its programming was largely faulty and seriously outdated.

So how about you? Are you adhering to the cultural rules at the expense of your body’s needs? Are you forcing yourself to exercise in ways you don’t even like, or ways that actually cause your body harm? Are you ready for an internal upgrade?

How about asking your body how and when it wants to move, rest and eat? Your intuition might be timid after years of being ignored, but the more you ask, the clearer it will get. As you experiment with listening, you may have some anxiety, possibly the same anxiety that led you to abandon your body in the first place. But this time, you can get support from people who understand. This time, you can learn how to tolerate being emotionally uncomfortable and treat yourself with love and kindness. This time, you can see that emotions pass and old beliefs can be updated. You do not have to forsake your body in order to get love. You can learn how to love yourself and get what you were looking for all along.

I promise.

View on The Huffington Post

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Finding Some Relief for Grief

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

Some of us start to experience grief and loss early in life. Others don’t get hit with the big whammies until our later years. Either way, we all have to face grief and loss, as long as we choose to love. In fact, the bigger the love, the bigger the grief. I hate that. When I realized recently that the more I love my people, the more I have to grieve when I lose them, I thought, Uh oh. I’m screwed. I love my people big.

But what are our options? I only see two: love less or seek solace. I’m goin’ with door number two. One way I find solace is through reading and listening to matters of the heart; spiritual matters that go deeper than our thoughts or the material world around us. Much of the spiritual literature I dive into teaches about the need to let go of attachment. I repeat, Uh oh. I’m so not unattached to my loved ones. I love talking to them, seeing them, playing word chums with them, having them on the planet.

So how do we bear the unbearable? How do we shore up to prepare for, or weather the storms of grief? Do we try to love our loved ones less? Attach less? Close our hearts more? Isolate? Use massive amounts of pharmaceutical and/or street drugs? Check-out on screens? Having evaluated all these options and more, I come back time and time again to choosing a wide-open heart. And if your heart is filled to the brim with love for your loved ones, you understand only too well how this leaves us wide open to grieving the loss of said love ones. Darn.

So how do we get some relief from grief? How do we handle losing the people (or furry friends) we are the most connected and attached to? Whether you have just been hit with an insurmountably shocking loss, or you are experiencing a loss you saw coming but still have to face and feel, or you are living in anticipation of a loss around the corner, may these ideas help you feel some comfort and connection.

Welcome and honor your pain.

As challenging as it is to feel our painful emotions, the only way to move through them is to allow them up and out. Let yourself cry and sob and wail. Then rehydrate. Get water in you and you in it. Drink water and tea, take baths and showers. And repeat. Remind yourself that crying is normal, necessary and healing. Our tears actually contain toxins that get released when we cry. So although crying is certainly not the funnest part of life, it is part of what helps us move through loss. Since our emotions are natural and we are designed to experience feelings like sadness, anger and fear, the only way to avoid them is to stuff them down unnaturally. That’s where substance abuse or excessive behaviors come in. Those are attempts to stuff down our painful emotions. But pain is part of the deal here. When we befriend, or at least accept our emotions and allow them out in healthy ways, they move through us.

Speak to yourself as you would speak to a loved one.

Allowing our emotions to come up and out is one thing, but how we speak to ourselves internally is another thing entirely. So often, my clients tell me they let themselves cry but they feel no relief. Sometimes it’s because they are just in the thick of it, but oftentimes it’s because their self-talk is unkind. Imagine if a crying child came to you for comfort and you said, “Quit crying.” Or, “Stop being such a crybaby.” Or, “Stop, that’s enough!” They certainly would not feel better. In fact, they would feel even worse. So, if your internal talk is anything less than empathic or kind, you will be that much less likely to feel relief from your grief. Take a look at the way you speak to yourself when you are in pain and see if you can upgrade it to a kind and tender tone. The better you get at welcoming what you feel, the sooner you will feel better.

Treat your body respectfully.

In addition to the way you speak to yourself, pay attention to the way you treat yourself. I’m guessing (or hoping) that if someone you love was grieving, you would feed them well, make sure they got rest, fresh air, and lots of TLC. Some people have a hard time eating when their bodies are filled with feelings, so respectful treatment for them might be to encourage themselves to eat anyway (even if it’s just soup and smoothies for a while). Other people have a hard time eating moderately when they are highly emotional and they may need to encourage themselves to reach out for support rather than to excess food. If you are in the thick of grief, do your best to get adequate rest and some movement, even if it’s a short walk around the block to get some air. Many people have the tendency to reach for unhealthy substances or habits in an attempt to comfort or numb themselves, but in the long-run this is not respectful, loving treatment for your body or your grief. Ask yourself how you would take care of someone you love and do your best to treat yourself that way.

Give yourself time (but not too much).

Several years ago, I experienced the death of a loved one. I spent hours and hours sobbing in bed. I longed for a nightstand brimming with pharmaceutical drugs and alcohol but refused to revert back to my old ways of coping. Eventually, my husband came in and said, “You have two more hours and then you have to shower.” I told him, thank you for your concern but showering won’t be possible. (Though I’m fairly sure I didn’t use big words like “concern” or “possible.”) My head was about to explode from sobbing so much and leaving my bed simply did not seem like an option. But it was. And I did. And it helped. The warm water helped. Getting up helped. Doing as I was told helped. I still sobbed and howled in every corner of the house but each day, week, and month, the intensity of the grief changed shape. Some losses are with us always, like scars on our hearts but they often change shape with time.

Creating rituals and writing.

Another way of expressing your grief is to create a ritual that symbolizes and honors your relationship with your loved one. Lighting a candle, creating a memory book of pictures or symbols of your relationship, playing your loved one’s favorite music, writing them a letter, eating his or her favorite foods, watching their favorite movies, listening to their favorite music or songs you enjoyed together, or creating art to express your grief. One client took time on the anniversary of her husband’s death, to walk to their favorite spot in nature and write him a letter. A grief dialogue is another written ritual that many people find healing. This is where you allow your grief to express itself on paper. You write whatever wants to come out until you feel complete. Then you write a loving, compassionate response back. There are countless ways to honor your grief. As long as it feels productive and kind to yourself, it has the potential to help you along your healing path.

Stages are not set in stone.

It can be helpful to know that there are essentially five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. These were originally developed by author and grief expert, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Being familiar with these stages can help to normalize what you’re going through and know you are not alone. However, it’s important to know that these stages are not always linear and they are certainly not quick, cut and dry. Some can take months or years to move through. Some stages get recycled back to when we thought (or others thought) we were done. In general, most humans in grief do go through these stages in one form or another, but they are certainly not given a timeline or a linear prognosis. Be gentle with yourself as you move through the process, and perhaps cycle back to stages you thought you were done with. Grief takes time and some losses are with us forever. Certain dates or times of year can trigger our feelings and even a song, picture, dream or memory can ignite a flame of grief out of the blue. Remember, the bigger the love, the bigger the grief, so it’s not always a bad thing if your grief wells up. It might be inconvenient, and it’s certainly not easy, but it is often a sign of love and connectedness to your loved one.

Don’t mistake berating for bargaining.

One stage of grief, bargaining, can easily slip into berating. Many people beat themselves up for the things they think they “should” have done differently. The “if only’s” that are a normal part of grief can often turn into turning against oneself. The truth is, we can never know if that “if only” would have turned out any better. It’s easy to think so but we can never truly know. There are a million ways things could have gone. Plus, the chances are, if you had done it differently, your mind would likely come up with a few new “if only’s.” Our minds tend to invent scenarios that really only serve to make us feel worse, when what we need in grief is to feel compassion. If you find you are beating yourself up for things you think you should or shouldn’t have done, see if you can label it bargaining, and go deeper, to the emotions that lie underneath the should-ing story. Perhaps it’s sadness, perhaps it’s anger, or some other emotion waiting to be acknowledged, honored and felt. Most emotions live in our bodies as a sensation. Berating and rehashing our choices are stories that live in our minds and keep us from being in present moment reality. So when you are in the bargaining stage of grief, watch out for berating, and gently steer yourself back to normal, natural grieving.

Four Tasks of Grieving.

While many people are familiar with the stages of grief mentioned above, not as many are aware of the Four Tasks of Grieving, identified by Dr. J. William Worden. He says that these tasks must be accomplished during the process of mourning and while everyone handles and moves through them differently, and in their own time, it can be helpful to have an understanding of them, either for yourself, if you are experiencing a loss, or to better understand and support someone you care about.

The four tasks are:

Task #1: To accept the reality of the loss

Task #2: To work through the pain and grief

Task #3: To adjust to a new environment

Task #4: To find an enduring connection with the deceased while moving forward with life

Reel yourself back to the present (whenever possible).

This one is uberly easier typed than done. Of course it can feel impossibly hard to be present. Present is where the grief is. But present is also where your soft blanket is, or the comforting hand of your loved one, or this breath, this sound, this sensation. It’s so seductive (and actually the minds’ job) to think and think… and um… think! It’s trying to be helpful, I’m sure; trying to figure everything out. But it can’t. We can’t figure out how we are going to handle a loss if it hasn’t happened yet. We can’t figure out how to get through next week if it’s still today. Sometimes an idea or intuition comes to us about something and of course, we can follow its lead, but most of the time, our minds are off in the future, trying to figure out something that we don’t have (or don’t even need) the skills for. I remember working with a client once who was anticipating the loss of her mother. She was so scared about how she would get through it, how she would be able to plan the funeral, clean out her mother’s house, do all the things she dreaded doing. But she didn’t need the skills, grace, energy or knowhow to do those things right then. Her mom was in the process of passing and she needed only the skills and grace to handle that. That was hard enough. So see if you can reel yourself back to the present moment as much as possible. We can handle what is in front of us because it’s in front of us to handle, but we don’t need to handle what is not yet here. It’s like wondering how you’re going to do college level homework when you’re still in high school. Just attend the class you are in. That’s more than enough.

Reach out to loved ones.

Not everyone is comfortable with strong or long-term emotions, but some people are. Make sure you reach out to people who welcome your grief; people who totally understand and can offer compassionate listening, tissues, or words that help you feel heard and understood. It can help to talk to the people who share your grief as well, but it also helps to find people who are uninvolved and can offer you one-way support. If someone responds in a way that doesn’t feel helpful, consider asking them if they could word something differently, or kindly let them know what would feel helpful. Some people naturally support us in just the ways we need. Others might be teachable if we respectfully ask for what we need. And of course, there are those that are just not a good fit to take our deep emotions to. It’s important to know who is safe for our big feelings and who it’s best to be vague with. Not everyone speaks the same language and you wouldn’t speak French to someone who doesn’t know that language. Find people who speak the language you are needing to hear or who are open to a bit of tutoring along the way. Whether you are needing verbal feedback or a quiet loving presence, there are people who would be honored to support you.

Seek professional help.

There are countless therapists who could walk you through this chapter, as well as many grief support groups available, both online and off. There are also a wealth of books, blogs, podcasts and other resources that can help. Doing a web search for grief support or seeking a health professional in your area who treats or specializes in grief can get you started. One resource in particular is Hospice. Not only does their website offer many services and answers to questions but many hospices offer free grief support to community members, regardless of whether or not their loved one used their services. It’s important to note that even someone who is a trained professional may not give you exactly what you are needing, so hopefully you can remain open to voicing your needs. Some people really only want to be heard and others want feedback. We often want and need different things, depending on the moment, the day, or the stage. If you have a sense of what you would like for support, it can really help to let your therapist know, and if not, you might get clear as you go. Therapists don’t always get it right and not everybody needs the same things. Plus, you find out the most about someone’s safety and support capacity when you make a respectful request and see how they respond. A safe person will respond non-defensively and kindly. They will truly want to know what you are needing and feeling.

Feed yourself spiritually.

Death is the greatest mystery in life. We can’t grasp it in our minds or hold onto it in our material world. As humans, we are all taught to feed our bodies with food and feed our minds through learning but what about feeding our spirits? What about fostering a deeper connection to the things that can’t be seen or held? Whether you have formal practices like prayer, meditation, reading or listening to spirit-filling things, or perhaps you find connectedness through nature or mindfulness practices, it’s so important to fill ourselves up on a deeper level. Dropping down from the busy mind, we can tap into our intuition and this can guide us to what we need and what is bigger than our daily to-do’s. Taking the time to get quiet and contemplative and tune into our hearts is a very important and helpful part of the grief healing process.

Consider reading or listening to reports of NDE’s.

One of the things that can provide some comfort is to read and listen to stories from people who have survived a Near Death Experience. Millions of people, from all walks of life, have been pronounced dead from natural causes and been revived. The majority of them report the same things: peace, well-being, light, love, and nothing to fear. Listening to, and reading these stories can provide some peace to a topic that generally induces the most fear. Since death is the biggest mystery we’ve got going here, and one we have no say in avoiding, we can take some solace in learning from those who have experienced it. There are many books, podcasts and reports of NDE’s. If you think this could provide you with some answers and peace of mind, consider checking some of these out.

Find a belief that brings some relief.

Many years ago, I experienced the loss of a dear friend. It was certainly not the first death in my life but it was the first where I was old enough (and sober enough) to grok that we are all here impermanently. I had not really gotten that memo before. I was floored. I simply could not believe that my friend was here one day and then not here, like ever again. I set out to find out what the deal was. I literally asked anyone I could get my hands on, what their beliefs about death were. Many “I have no clue’s” and uncomfortable throat clearings later, I found a few people who shared a few theories that helped me have a few moments of peace. And since it’s all theories and stories we can choose to believe or discard, I decided to adopt a few that helped me feel a bit better (or a bit less dread). One was from a colleague who explained it this way: “Dogs and cats do not know there are planets and stars or a sun and a moon but we know for sure that they exist. Well what if there were all kinds of bigger things that exist but we don’t know about them?” So I tried that one on. Maybe there is more to it and I know as much about that as a dog knows about Jupiter? Hmmmm.

Another helpful theory I adopted came from a cousin. She said, “Since I can’t know what death is really like, I’d rather spend my life believing that it’s peaceful and get to the end and find out I was wrong, then spend my life in fear of it and find out it was peaceful. Either way, I’m making up a story so I’m choosing one that makes me feel better while I’m here.”

Sold.

We are all in this together.

Regardless of our circumstances in life, we all experience death and loss. No matter how separate we feel from one another or how we manage to separate ourselves through our various labels, the fact is that we are all here temporarily and we will all have loss. It’s so common to think or feel that we are alone in our grief, that nobody gets it or gets us. And while your closest people might not fully understand what you are going through in this moment, they will someday, or perhaps they already have. There’s an old Buddhist parable called The Mustard Seed that illustrates our universal connectedness. It speaks to the fact that so many of us feel incredibly alone in our grief, and yet we are not. The story is told like this:

During the time of Buddha’s life, a mother loses her son. The devastated woman carries her lifeless child from neighbor to neighbor, searching desperately for someone who could bring him back to life. Someone suggests she ask the Buddha. She does and Buddha tells her to go and gather mustard seeds from all the homes that have never been touched by death. Once gathered, she should bring all the seeds back to him and he would make a medicine that would restore her son’s life. The woman does as instructed and begins knocking on door after door in search of someone who has not been touched by death. Obviously, she is unable to retrieve any mustard seeds because everyone has been touched by death in some way.

While grief can feel so overwhelming and so isolating, it can sometimes help (a tiny bit) to know that this great mystery of death is universal and we are all in this together. Grieving is hard work. It’s surely one of the hardest parts of life. And it can sometimes feel never ending. But authentic, safe expression of our feelings is the only way to release and relieve our pain so we are not left with the secondary effects of addiction and chronic depression. While there is no cut and dry formula for grief, and regardless of the cause or shape of your grief, speaking to and treating yourself kindly, reaching out for support, and reminding yourself that you are not alone can help.

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Trying Not to Try: The Wild Mind Workings of a Recovering Perfectionist

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

If you are someone who has struggled with eating and body image, there’s a good chance you have also struggled with perfectionism. If this is the case for you, you’re likely no stranger to the concept of trying.

Back in the days of my eating disorder, my trying looked something like this:

  • Trying to lose weight
  • Trying a new diet
  • Trying to recover from a binge
  • Trying to work out
  • Trying to work out more (Pull up a chair, this could take a while!)
  • Trying to improve my looks
  • Trying to get a boyfriend
  • Trying to look good
  • Trying to fit in
  • Trying to do well in school
  • Trying to be cool
  • Trying to be perfect

Next up were my early years in recovery:

  • Trying to listen to my body
  • Trying to eat intuitively
  • Trying to get it right
  • Trying to let go of being perfect
  • Trying to be perfect
  • Trying to be balanced
  • Trying to be healthy
  • Trying to be a good person
  • Trying not to beat myself up
  • Trying to get a career
  • Trying to get “likes”
  • Trying to let go of caring about “likes”
  • Trying to keep up with the daily grind
  • Trying to do the right thing
  • Trying to know what the right thing was
  • Trying to look good
  • Trying not to care how I looked

These days it’s more like:

  • Trying to let go
  • Trying to be more present
  • Trying to surrender
  • Trying to live in acceptance
  • Trying not to get injured
  • Trying to be kinder to myself
  • Trying to find my glasses
  • Trying to have a balanced life
  • Trying to be peaceful
  • Trying to welcome all emotions
  • Trying to age well
  • Trying to surrender to aging
  • Trying to practice gratitude
  • Trying not to lose my keys
  • Trying to practice mindfulness
  • Trying not to beat myself up
  • Trying not to try so hard (I told you this could take a while!)

Recently, while on a lovely walk in the redwood forest, (my personal place of worship), I started thinking about all this trying. How for as long as I can remember, I have been trying, and then more recently, trying not to try so hard. I’d set out to take a lovely, quiet walk and commune with nature, yet that day, my mind was as busy as ever. I decided to call order in the court.

Hey! Can we give it a rest? Can we just stop trying? Can we stop trying to stop trying? Can we admit that the only reason we ever try to get or get rid of anything is because we think we will feel better if we did? Can we cut out the middle man and just cut to the chase?

And then, perhaps being witnessed by the majestic trees, the swaying ferns and the glistening creek, or perhaps because I made a conscious decision to drop trying (the new stop, drop and roll), something inside me gave way. My little tryer said, “Uncle,” and I began to steer my mind to the breeze, my feet on the ground, my arms moving in time, my breathing, a bird song. Much like pointing a tantruming child back to something soothing in the present moment, I steered my busy mind back home, back to reality.

The promises of attainment, achievement and accomplishment will pop up again and again, I’m sure. Many of us have been raised on way too much Disney and happily-ever-afters. But I’m onto it now. I am onto my mind’s seductive nature. Our minds seduce us into thinking if we just got this fill-in-the-blank, we would be happy, but all we have to do is remember the last several hundred things we were convinced would bring us happy-ever-after-ness to see that it’s not the case. If it were, we would have just lived happily-ever-after.

So, if you struggle with a busy little tryer inside of you, see if you can reel it back in now and then. Notice the simplicity of the moment. Remind your mind that anything you acquire will have pro’s and con’s and ups and downs so there really is nowhere to get. This is the best news of all.

In any given moment, we all have a feast of temptations to take us away from this moment. And then we have this moment. Reality. Right here. Right now. We get to choose… fantasies and fears or that which is actually, factually here. This breath. This surface. This sensation. This sound. I’m willing to give it a whirl if you are.

 

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Upgrading Your Body Image Soundtracks

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

While recently preparing to speak on a panel about body image, I began to reflect on the origins of my own body battle and the winding road I traveled in search of peace. I always thought that my body hatred was solely about weight; and while weight was certainly my main concern, I began recalling another reason for my body hatred.

Not only did I spend many torturous years comparing the size, shape and weight of my body to the women around me, I also compared my skin, hair, height, and other features. There were years when I either refused to wear, or felt extremely uncomfortable wearing, sleeveless shirts or open-toed shoes. This was because I had freckles on my arms and a beauty mark on one of my toes. So, my full-time inner war was not only about weight, it was also about being what I perceived as flawless. Any spot, blemish or freckle was simply unacceptable. I even recall attempting to cut that beauty mark (which I referred to as an “ugly mark”) off my toe. I actually took a knife to my skin in an attempt to remove it. I had caught the cultural spell of body hatred and I had caught it big time. Sadly, I know that millions of others have too.

It’s clear to me that out of all the moments I have spent on this planet, the majority of them have been spent thinking negatively about my body. I suppose, since the tide has turned for me and more peaceful years have continued to add up, this sad ratio will change. And now my deep devotion is helping others change their ratios and free up many more moments to enjoy their lives.

Before I knew that there were other issues beneath my body obsession and before I knew what those issues were, I don’t think I had a choice about stopping or upgrading my bad body image soundtracks. The thoughts popped up and I was unable to delete them, let alone even know there was a delete option. I wholeheartedly believed my thoughts were the truth.

Nearly every moment, my mind played a repeat loop of body hatred and dissatisfaction, coupled with a desperate desire to mold my body into something that I was convinced would bring me attention, worthiness and love. My thoughts held me in their grip and led me into addictive behaviors that would then grip me for decades. A simple suggestion or article on body love was not about to loosen that grip. I needed major help in order to heal the deeper issues that sparked both my body obsession and the secondary issues that obsession was fueling.

I didn’t know back then that body hatred was an indication that I needed help. And I certainly didn’t know that the only way to truly feel loved and valued by others is to truly feel lovable and valuable, period. In our image-crazed culture, that’s not easy to achieve. But it is possible. It’s possible to change your mind and get your life back on track. It’s possible to regain your choice about how you view and verbalize your thoughts about your body. It’s possible to heal your relationship with food, learn how to deal with difficult emotions, communicate your feelings and needs, quiet your negative mind and find healthy ways to fill up and feel lovable.

It took me many years to upgrade my body image soundtracks. The old playlist had well-worn grooves: I hate you, you’re ugly, you’re disgusting, you need to change, you’re unacceptable. If I lose weight, I will be happy. If I perfect my body, I will be more lovable.

Those were pretty much the main tracks my mind played and replayedNot only were those messages deeply ingrained, but I was surrounded by others who were repeating the same sad soundtracks too. And for us older folks, we can now throw wrinkles, spots and sagging skin into the mix.

But we have a choice. We have a choice about how we speak to ourselves. Every single time we see, speak about, or think about our bodies, we have a choice about what soundtracks we play in our minds. And if you don’t yet feel like you have a choice, you can get help to clear your path until you regain your power to choose.

These days when I look in the mirror and I notice new signs of life on earth– a new curve or line here, a new spot there– I automatically remember my options: hateful or grateful. What’s it gonna be, girl? Regardless of the soundtracks I play, my body remains my body. It’s only my misery on the line here. So, there’s a new sheriff in town. I choose to hit play on the upgraded soundtrack: I love you, I’m grateful for you, I accept you. 

May you upgrade your own soundtracks and enjoy many more of your precious moments on earth.

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Life in the Moderate Lane

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

It didn’t take long for me to notice that I was different than most of my friends. (At least the ones I was constantly comparing myself to!) Beginning in early adolescence, I noticed that my friends somehow seemed to be able to have one or two drinks, one or two bong hits, one or two late nights and one or two cookies. Not me. One or two of anything typically led me to overdo everything.

I will spare you the long, detailed saga, but suffice it to say that my inability to be moderate with substances led me down a path of addiction and depression that would last for many years.

To other people, I was the one who could handle the most shots, the most partying and the most all-nighters. But internally, my soundtrack was grim. I hated myself. My blackouts were getting more frequent, and my secret life of bulimia led to some of my darkest days (and nights) of despair.

Thanks to enormous amounts of help, grace and willingness, I was eventually able to let go of drugs, alcohol, cigarettes… and perfectionism. I did, however, need to keep eating. This one was a toughie and anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder can attest to that. So, for a few decades, I continued to ride the diet/riot roller coaster, attempting to eat only the foods our culture deems “good” until the dam would break and the bingeing began. My weight fluctuated constantly, right along with my self-worth, and while I remained extremely grateful to be clean and sober, I continued to be imprisoned by food and body obsession. I tried cutting out certain foods and I tried the eating-whatever-I-wanted-whenever-I-wanted plan. Neither brought me freedom, peace or health.

Alas the day came in my recovery when I decided that despite decades of cultural brainwashing to the contrary, I needed to strike the food rule madness from my internal record, and create all foods equal. Of course, all foods are not nutritionally equal, but when I, for example, let go of thinking cookies are bad and kale is good, I was able to begin inquiring about what my body was truly hungry for. When I also became willing to face, feel and feed my emotional and spiritual hungers, it became easier to know what and how much my body was physically needing.

I used to approach my meals from one of two positions: restrict to try to lose weight, or rebel and eat everything in sight. Then I decided to do what I refer to as “the biggest do-over of my life.” I began to approach food with honest internal inquiry: Am I truly physically hungry? What is my body (vs. my rebel or my restrictor) truly craving?

Some people on the path of making peace with food choose Intuitive Eating as their goal. This means they strive to listen to their physical hunger and fullness cues and let go of dieting mentality. Some find this path too vague and need to have a more concrete “food plan.” I refer to this as finding your “Live-it” (as opposed to a die-it!) Some people need to stay away from certain foods because they simply don’t feel well when they eat them. Some people find it helps to commit to a certain amount of meals and snacks each day and then work on not restricting or rebelling.

Regardless of the path you take, if you have been struggling with strict dieting and/or rebellious bingeing, your answers live deep inside your heart. You might not be able to hear them yet, but your inner wisdom knows how to feed yourself. You were born with this intuition. Children don’t automatically think there are “breakfast foods” or “lunchtimes,” “good” or “bad” foods, or “good” or “bad” body shapes. They learn it all.

Conscious eating requires a moment-to-moment awareness of what your true feelings and needs are, what your body is actually hungry for and what is honestly the right amount for your body at that time. And unlike what the diet industry will tell you, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer. Dessert might feel like a loving choice for you in one instance and not a loving choice in another. You might want sushi and a cookie for breakfast one day or an omelette and toast for dinner one night. Your body can be trusted more than your brainwashed mind.

So, while it’s true that you can stop using drugs or alcohol but you can’t just stop eating, you can stop restricting and/or overeating and you can stop making your food choices based on self-hate. You can learn to eat the foods you love in moderation and tolerate your emotions when food is calling and your bodies tank is already filled. You can achieve your natural weight without dieting and you can learn to accept your body at its natural state. And you can learn new ways to get sweetness, comfort and fulfillment in your life.

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Helping Teens Get Over Overeating

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

Parenting a teen can be a bumpy ride—they need you around, but often don’t want you around as they navigate friendships, love interests, school, homework, hormones and future goals. And as if all that wasn’t enough, today’s teens also have to contend with the constant images and messages they see on social media, telling them how they should look, eat, exercise and feel. Many teens simply aren’t equipped to handle the traditional pressures of adolescence, as well as the additional pressures of being a “screenager.”

As a society, we’re all given endless rules about food and fitness. It’s hard enough for adults to navigate all of this in our perfectionistic, plugged-in, fast-paced, image-obsessed culture. For teens, it can be really easy to slip into body hatred, depression, anxiety, addiction, food restriction or overeating—and sometimes all of these.

With diet ads, fad fear foods and air-brushed images enticing them on one end of the spectrum and supersized portions, big gulps and carb-laden drive-thru meals on the other, our culture sets up many teenagers to ride the diet/riot roller coaster. Then they have the constant “shoulds” and rules about exercise, which break down their natural rhythms of movement and rest. Here, one end of the spectrum beckons them with cardio calculations and images of six-pack abs, while the magnetic pull of their screens and a good dose of hopelessness beckon them toward the couch. Constant images of perfectionistic bodies have most teens anxiously striving to look a certain way, leaving a wake of millions feeling depressed and ashamed about looking the way they do.

I started hating my body and yo-yo dieting when I was a teenager, and because the only solutions I sought were fad diets or Jane Fonda Feel the Burn workouts, my struggles escalated from there. It would be many years before I would finally unlearn the cultural craziness and relearn the natural wisdom we are all born with. I then decided to devote myself to helping others—the ol’ lemonade out of lemons deal.

Having spent the last twenty-five years counseling people who struggle with eating and body image, I’ve recently become dedicated to early prevention. The sooner someone gets help with disordered eating and body hatred, the higher the rate of success in overcoming them. While there is certainly hope for improvement at any age, an early start can save someone years of futile dieting and painful overeating. My latest book, Getting Over Overeating for Teens, is geared toward just that: helping adolescents who are struggling with overeating, binge eating, ineffective dieting and body-image issues. Parents and health professionals can also utilize the tools and activities to help the adolescents they are concerned about.

In this book, I teach readers about four important areas that need to be addressed in order to get over overeating: emotional, mental, physical and spiritual. Of course, I use much more teen-friendly language but knowing that all four areas need to be addressed in order to create what I call a “Stable Table” will help teens, parents and health professionals heal the pervasive problem of overeating in our diet-crazed, supersized culture.

In section one, “Healing What You’re Feeling,” I help teens learn how to identify their emotions and exactly what to do with them other than turning to excess food. I write that “one of the biggest reasons people overeat is to try to stuff down their painful feelings. Overeating is like saying ‘go away’ to your feelings, especially painful ones. The only problem is that when we overeat to try to make our pain go away, it ends up causing more pain. This is because once we finish eating, we still have the original feelings we ate over, plus all the feelings we have from overeating. It’s a good try, though. Food does give us some comfort and distraction—for a little while anyway. Once you learn healthy ways to deal with your feelings, you’ll no longer need to use food like a drug, to try to make your feelings go away, and you can eat what you really like, in healthy amounts.”

So the emotional aspect of getting over overeating entails learning how to cope with difficult emotions rather than eat over them. Most of us have been taught that we are supposed to feel happy all the time, so feelings like sadness, anger, loneliness and fear get a bad reputation. Ironically, this has contributed to an epidemic of depression and anxiety. So learning to identify, tolerate and even welcome our uncomfortable emotions is a huge part of healing overeating. One metaphor I use is riding a wave. I write that “we can learn to ride a wave of emotion just like a wave in the ocean.”  I teach teens that happy people are not always happy and that just like the weather has patterns, so do we. This will arm them, not only to get over overeating but to be much more equipped for healthy living in general.

Section two, titled “Pay No Mind to Your Unkind Mind,” is all about our thinking. I write that “we all have automatic thoughts that pop up in our minds, just like we have automatic pop-up ads on our computer screens. It’s so easy to believe our thoughts. After all, they are our thoughts! They seem and feel so real, but the truth is, our thoughts aren’t always real, and they sure aren’t always helpful, kind, or true. The good news is that, just like we can close those unwanted pop-up ads on our computers with a simple click, we can learn to close the pop-ups in our minds.”

Readers will learn the concept of having different “mind moods.” We can have an “unkind mind, kind mind or quiet mind.” Oftentimes, people who turn to excess food have loud unkind minds and they use food in an attempt to soothe, quiet or even confirm their unkind thoughts. Teens will also learn about different ways to combat their unkind minds. “Strong, soft, silly or silent” is one chapter that gives them a menu of different tones they can take with their unkind thoughts.

The third section of the book, “Befriending Your Body,” teaches readers how to take care of what I refer to as their “body battery.” Many adolescents who struggle with overeating are disconnected from their bodies’ natural signals. They, like many adults, turn to the only solutions our diet-crazed culture has up its sleeve—eat less and exercise more. But if this simple advice worked, most people would have a healthy, peaceful and natural relationship with food and movement (something we certainly cannot accuse our culture of having!).

In this section of the book, I teach readers how to “step off the diet/riot roller coaster”; how to identify their “hunger number”; how to “find their natural weight in a natural way,” and much more.

Teens will learn to “follow the clues of the foods that they choose.” This will help them see that the foods they overeat hold important clues as to what need they are trying to meet. For example, excess sugar may mean they need more sweetness in their lives (externally and internally). Turning to comfort foods might mean they need more comfort, and so on. They also might be choosing a certain food because it reminds them of when they were little and felt more taken care of and less pressure; or a certain food reminds them of someone they miss or resent. It’s so important to know that overeating is not about being weak but about important feelings and unmet needs. And as those get addressed, food will take its proper place.

In the final section, “Filling Up Without Feeling Down,” I teach readers many ways to feed their spirits. I write that “it’s pretty easy in our fast-paced world to focus on feeding our bodies and feeding our minds. But if we want to get over overeating, we also have to feed the deeper parts of ourselves that can’t be seen, the parts of us that have nothing to do with the material world—our hearts and our souls. These are places that food won’t fill. If we overfeed our bodies, we might be full, but not truly fulfilled. If we feed only our minds, we might think and learn a lot, but we won’t be really satisfied. We all need to fill our spirits too, on a regular basis. When you truly feed your spirit, you feel better afterward. You feel truly filled up, and there are no negative or harmful consequences.” It’s essential for us all to find healthy, inspiring, satisfying ways to fill up. What fills you up?

If you love, work with or care about a teen (or tween) who is struggling with overeating, binge eating or body image, I hope you will consider this new read.

The above book excerpts from Getting Over Overeating for Teens have been reprinted with permission from New Harbinger Publications, Inc. copyright © 2016 Andrea Wachter

The term screenagers, coined in 1997 by media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, refers to techno-savvy young people, who have been reared on television and computers.

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The Many Faces and Phases of Addictive Behaviors

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

Humans have been using drugs, alcohol, tobacco, excess food and other substances for centuries. When taken to extreme levels, such behaviors can adversely affect physical health, emotional well-being, relationships, work, school, finances and future goals.

In recent years, excessive use of screens, sex, porn, gambling, shopping and exercise have been added to the list of compulsive possibilities.

In addition to the more commonly known eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating, lesser known compulsions are also on the rise. Orthorexia, a more recent diagnosis, is when someone becomes obsessed with eating only foods they deem as “healthy.” But taken to extremes, even “healthy eating” can become unhealthy.

Another trend that has unfortunately been gaining popularity is known as Drunkorexia (or Alcorexia). These terms describe someone who severely restricts their food intake so they can both save their calories for liquor and get more drunk when they drink. This combination of starvation and excessive alcohol can lead to extremely dangerous, if not deadly, consequences. It appears that “partying” for many, continues to be anything but a party.

To make matters even more complex, many people struggle with more than one issue or substance at a time. Others overcome one habit, only to pick up another in its place, often described as “switching seats on the Titanic.”

Regardless of the means or methods that somebody uses to numb, distract, harm or comfort themselves, the bottom line is that in order for someone to get better, they need to want to get better. The negative effects of their actions need to outweigh the positive because as much harm as some habits can cause, we always get (or attempt to get) something from everything we do.

If you are one of the millions who struggles with an addiction or a chronic habit that has more of a hold on you than you have on it, consider some of the following stages and phases.

Denial is the earliest and sometimes longest stage of an addiction or a chronic pattern. Denial is when someone holds the belief that there really isn’t a problem. Or maybe they think there’s a problem but it’s “not that bad.” Sadly, this stage can last for a long time, sometimes years, sometimes a lifetime.

Breaking out of denial is the moment of truth when someone admits they have a problem. This is often spurred by negative consequences like job loss, legal troubles or ruined relationships. Some people hit bottom and break their denial for more internal reasons; they decide they’ve had enough and they need help. People can seek more light in their lives because the dark is too scary and painful, or they can seek light because they simply want more light in their lives. Regardless of the circumstances that lead someone to break their denial, admit they need help and actually seek help, it is a crucial turning point for anyone who struggles with an addiction or a chronic and painful habit.

Once the veil of denial has been lifted and there is motivation for change, it can be helpful to have an understanding of the stages of recovery. While there are various clinical terms that are used in the health field to describe these stages, I will share my own user-friendly terms here.

I initially developed these metaphors to help clients in my therapy practice find practical ways to describe the strength of their cravings as they traversed the road of recovery. If you are on the path of overcoming an addiction or unhealthy habit, see if you recognize your current level of cravings in any of these stages.

Wild Horses: This is when the cravings to use substances or self-destructive behaviors feel incredibly strong or even impossible to resist. The urge to partake in behaviors and intake substances is stronger than your ability to say no. This is obviously an extremely painful and frustrating stage, both for sufferers and their loved ones.

Buzzing Bees: Once someone begins to learn new coping mechanisms, they are likely to continue having urges to do their old behaviors, but in this stage, the pull to partake starts to diminish at times. It’s still really hard to ignore these cravings, but they begin to hold less power than the Wild Horses had.

Flittering Flies: This is when the cravings to use or abuse something are even less powerful and less frequent. In this stage of healing, people experience more and more choice about whether or not they pay attention to and obey their cravings.

Nasty Gnats: In this stage, urges are very infrequent, mostly arising when life gets extra challenging. Someone in this stage of recovery spends the majority of their time in freedom. They still have to deal with the hard parts of life, including painful thoughts, emotions and situations but they turn to outer and inner resources for support, rather than old behaviors. Very occasionally, an urge might return, but it doesn’t have much power. They can just ignore it, or decode what triggered it and continue to make healthy choices.

Freedom: This is when a person is free from the desire to use harmful substances or behaviors. They have many healthy ways to handle difficult emotions, and many means of getting fulfilment and comfort in their life. This does not mean by any means that life is perfect, it means they have many healthy ways to cope with life when it isn’t.

Of course traveling through these stages is not always linear or smooth sailing. It also doesn’t take the same amount of time for everyone. Much depends on what events contributed to someone’s need to use, how long they’ve been using, how willing and ready they are to change, and how much support they have and utilize.

If you are feeling stuck in the grips of a painful pattern or an addiction and you’d like to move one step closer to freedom, the following list highlights some important areas and life skills that need attention in order to do so. The good news is that you don’t have to learn these all on your own, or all at once. You also don’t have to do them all perfectly in order to make progress. This is your course curriculum for life and even small steps can move you forward in significant ways. As you read through the list, perhaps you can write down any areas in your life that you feel are already being attended to, as well as any that you would like to give more attention.

  • Make self-care a priority.
  • Learn to identity and tolerate your emotions and find new ways to cope with them.
  • Practice challenging, quieting and upgrading your unkind thoughts and replacing them with kind thoughts as often as possible.
  • Practice being present more of the time rather than lost in past and future thoughts.
  • Build a safe, compassionate support system.
  • Practice communicating your thoughts, feelings and needs in healthy, respectful, mature ways.
  • Find healthy distractions and learn ways to take breaks that leave you feeling uplifted.
  • Seek balance between rest and movement.
  • Nourish your body with the same care you would nourish a child you love.
  • Understand the deeper needs that your harmful habits have been attempting to meet and find new, healthy ways to get those important needs met.
  • Find comfort and fulfillment in life-affirming, rather than life-numbing ways.
  • Develop a regular practice of expressing gratitude and appreciation. (Even if things are really hard, there’s always something we can be grateful for!)
  • Let go of the notion of perfection and give yourself lots of credit for the progress and efforts you are making.

So if you feel like you have lost the power to choose whether you use some substance or partake in certain activities, consider taking one step that can help you move one step closer to freedom. And remember, you are not alone in this. There are countless therapists, support groups, books, blogs, podcasts, workshops and treatment centers that are here to help you heal.

This blog was previously published in Recovery Today Magazine. To subscribe to this free online app, click here: www.recoverytodaymagazine.com

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